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Monday, July 4, 2016

Elie Wiesel: "Wounded Faith"

Tributes have been pouring in for author, teacher and Holocaust-survivor Elie Wiesel who died on July 2 at the age of 87.
Elie Wiesel Sept 30, 1928 - July 2, 2016

Wiesel’s classic Night was one of the formative influences on my spiritual and theological development. Although written as a work of fiction, it is based on Wiesel’s own experience in the Nazi concentration camp where his father, mother and younger sister all perished.
Wiesel’s forty books all deal with the mysteries of suffering, God and faith, and the vital importance of memory. Wiesel has written extensively about the suffering of the Jews, but with no trace of self-pity, rage or entitlement. His voice has carried such moral authority because he has spoken on behalf of all innocent victims, not only his own tribe. He insists that we remember so that we will learn, grow and heal. 

Wiesel also reminds us that faith is a struggle and that doubt is an essential element of belief. 

It is common today for people to give up on faith too easily. “I see terrible things happening – so God must not exist.” “The Bible was written 2000 years ago – so it must not be relevant to today.” “Christians are responsible for wars and oppression – so the church must be wrong.” “I can’t make sense out of doctrines like the Trinity – so I’ll just dispense with them.” “Science has vastly increased our knowledge – so we’ve outgrown ancient traditions.”
From Elie Wiesel we can learn the importance of struggling with faith and wrestling with God.

In a 2005 interview with writer Cathleen Fansani, Wiesel talked about what he called his “wounded faith.”

Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.

“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly. “The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”

And yet you continue to wrestle with God?

“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.

You could walk away.

“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not. But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe. Not because of myself, but because of those who were before me. It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to stop, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to break the chain. And to choose what? Is it better to be agnostic or better to be an atheist? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I accept having faith. I call it wounded faith, my faith is wounded. But I believe. A very great Hasidic master once said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ And I paraphrase it differently: No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”

(From Cathleen Falsani, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.

Wiesel’s voice is so powerful because it is the voice of authenticity. There is nothing facile about his faith. It is the faith of someone who has wrestled with God. Atheists often accuse believers of taking the easy way out, of using God as an avoidance strategy. They haven't listened to Elie Wiesel. Faith for him is not an opinion considered at a safe distance. It holds him in its grip. It compels him. Far from blinding him to the realities of human existence, his is a faith “with an open eye.”  

I fear that we are losing that willingness to wrestle with God. I hope that Elie Wiesel’s voice will continue to be heard by future generations, that they will read him and remember him, and be both challenged and encouraged by his remarkable, wounded faith. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Never Too Late to Try

My wife and I recently watched the movie Danny Collins. It's about an aging pop star (Al
Al Pacino in "Danny Collins" 
Pacino) who was hugely talented as a young man, but chose money over art. He made a fortune singing the most shallow brand of pop tunes. He lived the life of a rock star -- booze, cocaine, women -- and now well into his 60s, it's starting to catch up with him. 

One day, Danny's manager (Christopher Plummer) brings him a letter, written to Danny by John Lennon forty years earlier. Danny never got it. His agent intercepted it and sold it. In the letter Lennon tells him how talented he is, and that he should follow his music. 

In a moment, Danny realizes that he's wasted his life. He wonders how his life would have been different if he'd got that letter when it was first sent. 

But he makes some changes. He cancels the rest of his tour. He moves into a hotel near his hometown in New Jersey. And he tries to make amends with the son he fathered on a one-night stand with a young groupie, but has never known. 

It's a story about how it's never too late to change. It's a story about the possibility of redemption. 

What I liked about it, though, is how believable the story is. The letter from John Lennon motivated him -- but it didn't magically transform him into a totally different person. He didn't suddenly become a saint. Change comes hard. He continues to hurt people and let them down. 

But he perseveres. The movie closes on a question mark -- but it's a beautiful question mark, opening onto an unknown but hopeful future. 

It made me think of my life (I'm 62) and, of course, the church. (Everything makes me think of the church these days.) It made me think of all the times I've thought it was too late to change, too late to start something new, too late to try to undo old mistakes. 

It made me think of all the times I've believed that about churches -- and the churches I know have believed that about themselves. It's hopeless. We're too old, too few, too far gone. And when that's the story we believe, it's hard to see moments of grace when they come to us. 

Danny Collins reminded me, that, while we can't turn back the clock, it's never too late to try to fashion a different tomorrow. 

Recently, I've been involved in a couple of church situations that I really thought were hopeless. "These people will never make it," I thought. And then, unexpectedly, there was, if not a transformational breakthrough, at least a cause for hope. 

We are where we are. And where we are is where God comes to us, and calls to us, and can use us if we are available. The God of the Bible is always at work creating a new and unexpected future. We are never past the point when we can do something to get on board with that future. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Look Who's Using the E-Word

I serve on the Board of our local Habitat For Humanity affiliate, and recently I attended the Habitat National Conference in Kitchener. 

As with most conferences, participants could sign up for a variety of workshops. One that I attended was on "Branding" -- specifically, how to use social media so that people will recognize who you are and know what you're about. It was led by Sean Moffitt, a well known marketing guru and author of the book Wikibrands: Reinventing Your Company in a Customer-Driven Marketplace. 

It was fascinating, but a lot of it was over my head. The information flew past at warp speed, and Sean talked about social media and technologies I had never heard of. 

But there was one moment that made me sit bolt upright. 

"It's no longer about product promotion," he said. "It's about brand evangelism."

Did I hear right? Did he just use the dreaded E-word? That word that Christians invented but that most of us are ashamed to utter? 

Did he just say EVANGELISM?

Evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion which means "good news." It's been central to Christian identity since the beginning. We have heard good news, and we need to share that good news with others. 

But what our churches have mostly stopped doing, marketers are embracing enthusiastically. Brand
evangelism assumes that it is not the corporation that calls the shots anymore, it's the customer. Companies are realizing that if they want their brand to take hold, they need more than high priced advertising. They need millions of ordinary people who will spread the good news for them. 

Brand evangelism is based on a few key principles. 

1.   The EXPERIENCE matters more than the PRODUCT. 
Branding is not just about the practical merits of this car, shampoo, cell phone, yogurt over its competitors. It's about the promise of a certain experience or lifestyle. It's about how this product will change your life. 

2.  PARTICIPATION matters more than PURCHASING
Brand evangelism takes off when people have a sense that they are participating in something bigger than themselves. By aligning with this particular brand, they are joining a movement. They are connected to others who share the same experience. 

Marketing used to appeal to people's long-term loyalty, loyalty that could last for generations. ("My Granddaddy was a Ford man, my Daddy was a Ford man, and I'll be a Ford man till the day I die!") Marketers today know that the ground is constantly shifting. Because people are looking for an experience, not just a product, they will quickly move on if something else promises to deliver that experience better. So companies need to be constantly thinking ahead and be ready to change their approach on a moment's notice, or they will be left behind, as former giants like Sears, IBM, GM and Blackberry have found out.  

4.  STORIES are critical
Marketers have become great storytellers. Or, more precisely, they have created the conditions in which their customers can become great storytellers. Brand evangelism relies on personal testimony that connects at the level of the heart. 

One of the best examples I've seen of this is the Tim Horton's commercial where a woman and her husband are cleaning out her parents' house in preparation for downsizing. It's the
house where she grew up. You see a flashback of her as an excited child on moving day. In the garage they find a cardboard box of Tim's cups, each marked with a significant event -- "Moving in," "Jess's first hockey game," "Dan proposed to Jess." They take the box out to her Dad who looks at the house he will soon leave, so full of memories, and then writes on the Tim's cup in his hand.

This commercial has nothing to do with coffee and donuts. It's about relationships, family and the creation of memory and meaning. The message is that Tim's is there in all the important moments of your life. 

And, it's a true story. 
If you haven't seen it, here's the link:

Church people get nervous when we talk about marketing. It sounds exploitative and manipulative and it certainly can be. 

But our critical Number One Question today is:  Do we still believe we have good news that's worth telling people about? Do we still believe that we have something that can change people's lives -- something of vastly greater value than even the best computer, car or cup of coffee? 

And if so, why are we so afraid to share it? If marketers can talk unabashedly about evangelism, why can't we? 

I know why. That word has a lot of baggage. It's caused a lot of harm. And we don't want to simply emulate the purveyors of religious consumer products. 

But what can we learn from today's marketers about how to get a message  into people's hearts and homes? 

Some questions:

How can we offer people an experience of God that rings true, and that touches their lives at a deep level? 

How can we foster a sense of genuine participation so that people are connected by things that really matter?

How can we become more responsive to our fluid cultural landscape without losing our souls? (A special challenge for churches that were created to resist change.) 

How can we free people to tell personal stories and find ways of sharing those stories with others? 

Of course, it all has to start with the message. We need to do some soul-searching there. It's clear to me, anyway, that companies believe more passionately in their message than many churches. 

Sounds like plenty of material for at least five more blog posts. 

Stay tuned. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Searching for a Faster Horse

Henry Ford once said, "If I asked people what they want, they would have said, 'A faster horse.'" 

It's human nature to want what we already have -- to default to the known and familiar. And that is the basic flaw in our current JNAC (Joint Needs Assessment) system. We ask our congregations, "What do you want?" and, surprise, surprise, they tell us that they want more of what they already have -- a minister who will fulfill their desires for topical sermons, pastoral visiting and ability to relate to all ages. 

It's the equivalent of looking for a faster horse.  

And that works well if our goal is maintain our churches they way they are now and to satisfy our present congregations. 

Except that most of our churches are NOT satisfied with the way they are now. Most of our churches are not content that they are becoming smaller, older and more tired. 

It requires an act of courage and imagination to ask, not "What do we want?" but "What do we need to do?" If we ask ourselves what we want, we will say "A better version of what we already have." Henry Ford was a visionary who was able to see beyond the limited horizons of people's current wants and desires. 

The real question that is facing the church today is "What do we need to do to be faithful to the task that has been given to us?" What is God asking of us? What does faithfulness to Jesus look like? Those questions require a different level of vision and imagination. 

And the answers to those questions might have little or nothing to do with what we have now. 

As long as we keep asking ourselves what we want, we'll just get more of what we already have. 

And how is that working?  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

More on Dwelling and Seeking

Recently I stumbled across the most amazing singer. Her name is Eva Cassidy.
Eva Cassidy
She has a voice of such purity and beauty, such a rare combination of power and fragility, it’s hard to describe.

Eva Cassidy died of cancer in 1996. She was only 33 years old. She sang in local clubs and festivals and made a couple of self-produced CDs. But outside of her hometown of Washington, D. C., she was virtually unknown.

She became famous by accident. The host of the big morning radio show on the BBC in Great Britain was given one of her CDs. He played Eva’s rendition of the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  
The switchboard lit up with people clamoring to know who this incredible singer was. Sales of her CDs took off in England.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics, figure skater Michelle Kwan used Eva’s version of the Sting song “Fields of Gold” as the music for her routine.  She became a hit in the US. 

Since her death, her CDs have sold over 10 million copies.

So why didn’t she become famous when she was alive? How could it be that someone as gifted as Eva Cassidy was only discovered after she died?

The main reason is that she refused to be put in a box. She couldn’t be categorized, so no record company would sign her. She sang folk, rock, jazz, blues and country tunes. But the record producers kept saying “What are you? Are you a jazz singer? A pop singer? A folk singer? You have to pick one.” And because she wouldn’t do that, she never got a recording contract.

In a documentary about her, a record executive tells how he called Eva near the end of her life and tearfully asked her to forgive him for not recording her. He said that it was the biggest mistake of his professional life.

So where am I going with this?

In my last blog post, I wrote about two different kinds of spirituality – the spirituality of “dwelling” and the spirituality of “seeking.” Dwelling is about home, belonging, and the safety and predictability of sacred spaces. Seeking is about risk, uncertainty, and the quest to find the holy in unexpected places.

And our temptation is to view these two kinds of spirituality as mutually exclusive, as an either/or. Either you’re a dweller or you’re a seeker.

Some would say that the day of the spirituality of dwelling is over. We all have to be seekers now. 

Isn't that human nature -- to always be trying to draw sharp lines and make clear cut distinctions? We do it in the church all the time. “Is your worship traditional? Or is it contemporary?” “Is your theology orthodox? Or is it progressive?” “Is your church attractional? Or is it missional?”

But we forget that the most contemporary forms are often those most deeply rooted in tradition; that most progressive theology (whatever that means) can be the most orthodox; and that the most attractive churches are the ones with the strongest commitment to a mission.

I'm always reminded of the worship writer Robert Webber who talked about our "ancient/future faith." 

The truth is that the deepest things of life are rarely hard-and-fast either/or’s. We wish they were. It would be simpler. But they are almost always both/and’s and life is about learning to navigate the paradoxes.

This is at the root of Christian faith. For centuries, Christians have affirmed that

·         God is transcendent. God is immanent.
·         Jesus is fully human. Jesus is fully divine.
·         God is one. God is three.
·         We are justified by faith alone. Faith without works is dead.
·         God is just. God is merciful.
      We must remember the past. We must forget the past. (Isaiah 43) 
·         If we want to live, we have to be prepared to die.
·         If we want to be great, we must be humble servants.

The life of faith is the ability to hold things that appear to be opposites in creative and energetic tension. It's what keeps faith alive and ever renewing. We don’t like tension, so we want to resolve it, to make it either/or, to fit the messiness into clearly labeled boxes. But whenever we do that, we end up with something much thinner, much poorer, much less true.

Eva Cassidy remained true to herself by refusing to be put in a box.

And Christian communities are most true to themselves, and more importantly, true to God, when they can learn to live in the life-giving tension between a spirituality of dwelling securely in the presence of God, and a spirituality of risk-taking pilgrimage. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dwelling Seeking and Practicing

The American sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote an important book about twenty years ago entitled After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. This book helps to explain the challenges that the church is facing in the 21st century.

Wuthnow argues that there has been a major paradigm shift in the last 60 years from a spirituality of “dwelling” to a spirituality of “seeking.”

In a spirituality of “dwelling,”  God has a definite place in the universe and human beings set aside sacred spaces where God is encountered. We know where to go to find God. We have a sense of being “at home,” of dwelling safely and securely in the “house of the Lord.” This spirituality expresses itself by constructing specifically religious buildings with “sanctuaries” and sacred objects that mediate the presence of God. We find this paradigm in the Old Testament traditions centred on the temple.

The 1950s, according to Wuthnow, represented a last flourishing of the spirituality of dwelling. Following the chaos of two World Wars and a global depression, there was a great hunger for stability. Churches were built to recreate the home, complete with parlours (living rooms,) kitchens, nurseries and family gathering spaces – but also with sanctuaries exclusively devoted to worship.  Churches and denominations were structured to create stability, which is one of the reasons we are finding it so difficult to undertake organizational change today. We have inherited structures that were specifically designed to inhibit change.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Wuthnow argues, the spirituality of dwelling was eclipsed by a spirituality of seeking. Rather than looking for safe and secure places where we can meet with God, the spirituality of seeking is the quest for fleeting moments of encounter with the sacred. God is often hidden, and then shows up unexpectedly, and not necessarily in times or places we think of as religious. Access to the divine can’t be be managed or taken for granted, and becomes detached from established forms, rituals and spaces. The spirituality of seeking is an individual journey of discovery, with restlessness and pilgrimage superseding predictability and home. Biblically, it is expressed in the exodus tradition.

Congregations formed out of a spirituality of dwelling find it very difficult to adapt to the fluidity and uncertainty of a spiritual culture based on seeking. Furthermore, younger generations who have been nurtured on the concept of spiritual seeking find traditional congregational life with its emphasis on conformity and belonging so unattractive. There is a sense of the irrelevance of the church in an increasingly needy and complex world.

Many would see the spirituality of seeking as an unmixed blessing, but Wuthnow argues that it comes with its own set of problems. Because it is so individually focused, it is inherently unstable. When everyone is on his or her own journey, and faith is seen as purely a matter of personal choice, the structures that are able to build and maintain community are undermined. So we have the phenomenon of the free-lance spiritual consumer, dabbling in whatever catches the attention at the moment, skimming the surface without ever reaching a place of depth. The very thing that attracts people to a spirituality of seeking – individual freedom to choose one’s path – makes it hard to sustain over time.

What is required is a third way which Wuthnow calls a “spirituality of practice.” Practices are habits of action cultivated over time that can lead to spiritual maturity in the individual, but also shared communion with others. They are not necessarily tied to institutional structures, but they can connect us to what is worthwhile in our traditions and to one another in bonds of community. Practices can also be borrowed and adapted from other traditions, broadening our horizons and our appreciation of those outside our familiar circle. Wuthnow’s work laid the foundation for the practice-based faith advocated by Dorothy Bass, Diana Butler Bass and others.

This is a good news/bad news story. The bad news is that much of our traditional congregational life simply doesn’t have much of a future. Congregations that simply try to hold onto scraps of a remembered church life will continue to struggle and decline.
But the good news is that our churches have rich resources of memory and tradition out of which new practices can be fashioned. I say “new,” but in fact contemporary spiritual practice often means the recovery of extremely ancient forms that are rediscovered and relived in today’s world. Time-tested practices of prayer, discernment, Sabbath-keeping, simplicity, care of creation, reconciliation and justice-making can both keep us connected to what is life-giving in our tradition, and guide us in our seeking of new ways to journey with God.

What it takes is time and intentionality.

After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s is still in print and available from and elsewhere.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Good News from Three Willows

There is a lot of stress and anxiety in our congregations these days. Sometimes that stress and anxiety hides the fact that there is a lot of creative and energetic ministry happening in our churches. 

As author and community builder John McKnight points out, we're conditioned to see deficits and not see assets. We see problems that need to be solved, rather than capacities waiting to be released. We see the glass half empty rather than half full. 

So it was a delight for me to be at Three Willows United Church in Guelph last Saturday morning for their congregational planning day.

Three Willows has done something that would be unthinkable in many congregations. They've scrapped all their committees!

The church is guided by what their call their Core Group (equivalent of the Board.) Ministry is undertaken by small groups who are empowered to use their gifts to serve the church.

The planning morning started with a thoughtful time of worship led by Eric McGillis, a young man who is part of the Core Team. Eric based his devotion time on the Beatitudes, especially Jesus' expression "the poor in spirit." That phrase, he said, means "humble before God." "One reason I love three willows so much is the humility of our people.... a place where people CAN be themselves and ask tough questions. And being a humble people is a big part of that." 

There were eleven tables set up around the meeting room. At each table was someone with an idea, a passion or a project. They included nuts and bolts things like ideas for fundraisers, to more experimental things like prayer walking, to ongoing tasks of community engagement, refugee sponsorship and worship. 

The twenty folks in attendance were set loose to go to the table of their choice where they heard about the idea, brainstormed possibilities and talked about how they could contribute. After about 20 minutes, everyone switched tables. Throughout the morning, people were able to go to five different tables. 

The energy level remained high throughout the morning, with the buzz of conversation reverberating around the room. 

For about 20 minutes, each table reported on what they had been talking about. 

At noon, Mary Elliott, who along with John Lawson form Three Willows' ministry staff,  checked to make sure that for every idea there was someone committed to following up. Then Mary said, "OK, you are empowered to pick this ball up and run with it. You don't need to ask anybody's permission. You need to check the calendar to make sure you don't conflict with something else that's going on, but you have permission to develop this idea." 

Three Willows is an amalgamated congregation that has had its share growing pains and challenges over the years. They face the same stresses as most congregations. 

So how encouraging to see a community with a strong sense of who they are working together to craft a shared ministry.